Hiking Florida’s Big Cypress National Preserve-1988 by Vic Wood

Hiking Florida’s Big Cypress National Preserve-1988

It was the end of another warm February day, the setting sun was straight ahead and palm trees flashed by my car window as I sped west into the night down the dark deserted highway.  Identification and access to my trailhead was made easy by the bright blue and green Florida Trail logo at the end of the Oasis Visitor Centre parking lot I arrived at just before midnight.  After a few hours sleep in the back seat of the car I slipped on my backpack at daybreak and started out on another backpacking adventure.  I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect morning as I followed the orange blazes into a strange landscape of dwarf cypress and within minutes I lost any sense of being connected to the highway as the swamp sounds and profusion of wildlife quickly absorbed my mind.  The footpath certainly waisted no time in initiating me into swamp slogging as the trail soon entered an open boggy area and began to disappear into cypress sloughs and flooded sawgrass prairies.  This section of the Florida National Scenic Trail from Everglades National Park through Big Cypress National Preserve to Alligator Alley is noted for being the wildest and most rugged section along the route plunging hikers into a watery tropical wilderness where wading is a must.  Needless to say, the crowd factor here is low. 

I forged on, sometimes wading ankle deep in water, and because alligators were present here I had to double check every log I stepped on.  Alligators spend a lot of time relaxing in the sun here and probably eat more turtles and fish than anything else.  I kept trying to convince myself that alligators didn’t really see people as a source of food, but I did try my best to stay upright in the water so they wouldn’t mistake the flutter of my hands and feet for fish.  My walking stick was not elaborate, just a long thin branch that happened to be the perfect length for balance and the ideal tool for flicking snakes out of my way.  The Big Cypress is the home of many different types of venomous snakes like the cottonmouth and eastern diamondback rattlesnake and it’s also the last stand for the endangered black panther.  There are over a thousand species of plants found in these wetlands and it’s one of the few places on earth where alligators and crocodiles can be found living side by side.  The swamp’s answer to Bigfoot and Sasquatch, the Florida Skunk Ape is supposed to be a large foul-smelling hairy ape-like creature that loves the hot and humid climate of the region.  Reports of Skunk Ape in the Big Cypress and Everglades were particularly common in the 1960s and 1970s.

For two days I slogged along without incident enjoying the constant company of exotic birds, wild turkeys, feral hogs, armadillos, otters, bobcats, and in some of the clear water sinkholes I would occasionally have close encounters with huge open-mouth water moccasins.  At the end of my second day I set up camp on a lovely little tropical pine island as I had done the night before, although this one turned out to be not quite so lovely.  A short time after sunset the wind started to blow, gusting noisily in the trees around my tent, and I noticed a line of black clouds advancing from the southwest.  The approaching thunder and strengthening wind seemed to rattle the earth and light rain began falling as I secured my rain fly to the ground.  The dead orange full moon, radiating in the night sky, cast an uncaring glare upon me and I began to feel something alien and foreboding in this place as I leaped into my tent.  A few minutes later a gale force wind blasted my campsite, followed almost instantly by heavy rain.  Then the storm was straight overhead with deafening continuous thunder, and lightning flashing so frequently that it lit the tent walls up like a strobe light.  Burrowed deep inside my sleeping bag I didn’t want to budge from its security, false as it was, even for a minute.  I slept fitfully on and off until I awoke suddenly short of breath, gasping for air like a fish out of water.  I bolted upright as my tent began to topple around me, collapsing under the weight of large plummeting tree branches.  Before I became entombed like an ancient mummy I managed to drag myself out into the rain and rolled up into a ball under some bushy shrubs that extended over two fallen trees.  I dragged the tattered tent and misshapen framework around my body and I lay ensconced in my green cocoon hugging the earth.  Outside, piercing calls echoed throughout the jungle….night had taken over.

The isolation in which I now found myself was somewhat unnerving, but eventually I think I must have slept, for I actually remember opening my eyes and suddenly realizing that the long night was finally over.  By morning an eerie quietness had settled over the swamp and the sky that had been so terrifyingly alive now hung around me lifelessly.  The poles in my tent were bent, but there was no question about my next move—I would go on as planned.  Packing up what was left of my tent, I shouldered my load again on the third morning and made my way back onto the soggy footpath.  My water-logged pack made everything double heavy, weighing me down as I bent and twisted my way through the confusing thickets.  By noon black clouds were sweeping across the pale sky once again and when the next storm rolled in it produced torrential and prolonged rain that would keep me in full rain gear for the rest of the day.  The visibility became very minimal now as the mist swirled around my head and the rainfall spewed sideways across my body like it was being shot from a firehose.  Most of the day was spent on a desperate bushwhack through boggy swampland and a primeval landscape of giant ferns.  I fantasized about a lovely tanned maiden in a dugout canoe coming along who would ferry me over to her dry grass hut where we would indulge in bright yellow bananas and other fresh fruit.  I could almost make her out in the watery haze coming closer.  Almost, but not quite.  Rumbling my way through the clouds like a plane in turbulence, my biggest problem now was keeping the bugs out of my mouth and ears.  Trying to out manoeuvre them I sprinted across a large swath of fallen tree branches that began to interweave with my boot laces.  After losing my footing a couple of times I eventually found myself lying on my back looking up towards the sky, where perhaps the answer was to my one question.  “Where did all these bugs come from, and is it the same pack that follows me or are they joined by others as they get their fill of my blood?”

Darkness was suddenly closing in on me again and it was time to make a decision about camp in the next few minutes.  Stumbling upon a small open area on a rare rocky island I cleared a dry space underneath a cave-like rock overhang and closed it in with pieces of bark I ripped off a dead tree.  With no one to talk to there was little incentive to stay up late, so I promptly enclosed myself inside my tiny shelter for the night.  As the greyness around me faded into darkness I really began to grasp the meaning of being absolutely and completely alone.  The following morning I woke myself up snoring, mouth wide open, to find that an enormous slug was stuck to my jacket, which I was using as a pillow.  After evicting him and packing up in record speed I continued my journey through a wonderland fit for an old Tarzan film, although I did not feel like Tarzan, old or otherwise.  But I started to get the hang of the place, appreciating my time alone on an infrequently used trail, with my only responsibility in life being to move forward with the mindless pleasure of taking one footstep after another.  Even though I sometimes found myself in knee deep water I was comfortable with it now and it just seemed normal.  My fears had given way to wonder and excitement and several times I observed the quick fire motion of alligator jaws as they snapped the unprepared turtles from their logs.  I was actually more nervous about the snapping turtles, coming up from below, seeking their ultimate retribution and taking revenge on my manhood.

By mid afternoon on the forth day the sky was totally clear and I decided to stop early, which gave me time for a nap under a gumbo limbo tree while my gear dried in the sun.  This turned out to be a great decision because by sunset I realized I was camped right in the middle of a nighttime roost for thousands of ibises, egrets, spoonbills, and many other birds.  From dusk until dark I sat there mesmerized as flock after flock came in and settled in the thickets around me.  It was an unforgettable sight and probably one of the most amazing natural spectacles I would witness in my life.  I slept out in the open that night under a star-filled sky, accompanied by a quartet of pig frogs who seemed to be fascinated by the glow of my nearby campfire.  Their call is similar to pig grunts and they are mainly active at night holding massive breeding choruses during the mating season.  Their legs are a popular dish and commonly eaten here in the southeast, either fried or grilled. 

The further I progressed into the deep shadows of the swamp the next day the more I became submerged in a disorienting maze of lush vegetation filled with plant life of every kind imaginable.  Even though I felt a bit trapped at times when I began to get hemmed in, it was like being in an exotic garden tropical garden and I found it hauntingly beautiful.  Even the cottonmouths that were menacingly coiled on floating logs along the way had a certain charm to them.  I did eventually arrive at another highway and spent the rest of the day hitchhiking back to my vehicle.  No sooner had I arrived back at my car and driven down the busy highway for a few miles I began to miss the wilderness.  Then I started to think about all the fried shrimp and conch fritters I was going to stuff into my mouth at Sloppy Joe’s Bar and I pushed the accelerator a little closer to the floor and sped south into the night towards Key West.  After a well deserved rest in the Keys I made my way north again for a short backpacking trip through the Ocala section of the Florida Trail where I enjoyed perfect weather and many pristine swimming holes like Alexander and Juniper Springs.  Tarzan’s signature cry really did echo through here at one time along the crystalline Silver River.  Between 1932 and 1942 Johny Weissmuller swung from tree to tree for the movie cameras amid this lush river habitat.  As a youth I read every Tarzan novel that Edgar Rice Burroughs ever wrote and saw every Tarzan movie that made the big screen, so this section of the trail was a special thrill for me. 

The 1,180 mile Florida National Scenic Trail is one of the great long distance hiking trails in the world.  (Most people have probably never heard of it)  Doing a few short sections of it gave me some of the most unique backpacking adventures I have ever experienced.  So if you’re looking for something totally different in the outdoors and one of the wildness adventures on this planet, this is it.   (Vic Wood)

If you would like to contact Vic, he can be reached at gildamcgrath@shaw.ca

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